However, Russia’s alliance with Iran has often seemed to be on shaky ground, according to various analysts.
The Sputnik report quotes Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying that the collaboration between the two countries is a result of Moscow’s calculations of its own interests, and has nothing to do with either friendly or adversarial gestures toward other countries like the United States.
On one hand, such commentary seems to suggest that Russia cannot be expected to change its behavior toward Iran in order to accommodate any other player on the global stage. But on the other hand, the same remarks could be interpreted to mean that Russia’s current behavior toward Iran could change, being based on a circumstantial alignment of their interests and not on any sort of ideological commitment to friendship between the two countries.
Such a change is either anticipated or hoped for by various analysts who have pointed to the possible divergence of Iranian and Russian interests in their most closely watched area of collaboration, the Syrian Civil War. And this possible divergence was essentially the main focus of a report published by Bloomberg on Thursday regarding the negotiations currently taking place in Geneva over the future of Syrian crisis.
That report pointed out that the Western-backed representatives of the Syrian rebels in those negotiations, called the High Negotiations Committee, had specifically called upon the Russians to recognize the destructive role of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and either break away from its current alliance or take steps to rein in its partner.
Russian airstrikes in the civil war, which began in 2015, have largely been carried out in support of ground operations that were either supported or led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its local militant proxies. Those activities were widely criticized for focusing on moderate rebels instead of ISIL forces, and were credited with turning the tide of the conflict in favor of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
But since the non-ISIL rebels were pushed back with the recapture of such strongholds as Aleppo, the Iranian and Iranian-backed forces have reportedly thwarted virtually all attempts to enforce a lasting ceasefire – a fact that has been eagerly highlighted by the High Negotiations Committee in the current diplomatic talks. Tehran and the Revolutionary Guards have been blamed for violations of previous ceasefires, and they publicly demanded additional concessions from the Syrian rebels before allowing refugees safe passage out of Aleppo.
Bloomberg quoted Salem al-Muslet, the chief spokesman for the HNC as saying, “Iran never wants any solution in Syria, the way they act on the ground shows that they want this war to continue.” Indeed, the apparent neglect of ISIL has been characterized as part of an Iranian strategy to partition the region into Sunni and Shiite enclaves, with Tehran leading the latter in a struggle for dominance of the Muslim world.
This is, of course, at odds with a Russian position that has been described as more flexible and as allowing for limits on the power of the Assad regime, which is increasingly viewed as a puppet of the Iranian forces that saved it from overthrow. If Russia regards this as a serious divergence of its interests from those of the Islamic Republic, it could undermine the alliance between the two countries, and could also change Moscow’s calculations as it tries to resolve what Bloomberg describes as a situation of being “torn between its traditional partners, Assad and Iran, and its potential partners in the fight against Islamic State — Turkey and the US.”
And the resolution of this situation has bearing on more than just the fight against ISIL. The dissolution or downgrading of the Iran-Russia alliance could also make Russia an ally, or at least less of an obstacle to the United States as it revises its foreign policy and becomes more assertive toward the Islamic Republic under President Trump.
While campaigning for office, one of Trump’s major foreign policy talking points was his claim that the nuclear agreement pursued by his predecessor was one of the worst agreements ever negotiated and that he would cancel or renegotiate it. Following through on this exact promise would be difficult given that the agreement was the product of multi-party talks. But if Russia becomes more amenable to the Trump administration’s positions on the deal, the only serious obstacle remaining among the negotiating parties would be China.
Three other members of the P5+1 group of nations, namely Britain, France, and Germany, are poised to present the White House with options for how they can tighten enforcement of the existing agreement without directly undermining it, according to Fox News. The same report notes that various opponents of the Iranian regime are also urging the Trump administration to take aim at other areas of Iranian behavior, which are not directly related to the nuclear agreement. But of course these activities could be expected to be more effective if they were supported by a broad range of international powers, and especially if that coalition included parties like Russia that have recently supported Tehran.
With regard to the nuclear agreement itself, it is still not entirely clear what course of action the Trump administration is going to take, or whether all of the US’s traditional allies will support that course of action. On Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other US officials met for the first time with Yukiya Amano, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is in charge of enforcing the nuclear deal. But the Washington Times reports that both sides of those discussions have so far remained silent about their contents.